What a Washington Post op-ed writer got wrong about Brigham Young
The Washington Post ‘perspective’ piece from David Mason actually proves that perspective from the muck and the mire of today’s society often prevents the expanded perspective gained from a view from a little higher up
Historians and true journalists recognize that presenting something within the context of a limited view, small data points and disconnected dots rarely lead to meaningful perspectives. The Washington Post “perspective” piece from David Mason actually proves that. Drawing hardened lines between Brigham Young and President Trump, Mason writes, “He (President Trump) isn’t the first leader to use faith as a justification for authority. Years ago, so too did Brigham Young, an American who took on the role of a divinely-led prophet. How Young wielded power shows us just how dangerous such authority can be.”
Mason went on with weakly woven strands in a decidedly derogatory portrait of “dangerous leaders.” Of course, no leader is perfect and every leader, including Young and Trump, can be criticized for their mistakes — things said or unsaid, things done and left undone taken along with the results of their leadership. A more complete history of such leaders — political, religious or business, with a perspective of the long view, including a little backstory perspective, is always more meaningful.
A more complete history of such leaders — political, religious or business, with a perspective of the long view, including a little backstory perspective, is always more meaningful.
Mason declares that Brigham Young was amassing power for himself and had issues with the federal government. A true perspective might point out that Young and the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been driven from their homes and persecuted for their faith numerous times and that the federal government, including a president of the United States, had told them that while their cause was just, there was nothing it could do to help. The Latter-day Saints had survived an “extermination order” on their heads from the governor of Missouri and then trekked across the country to find a place where they could live in peace.
Brigham Young led a migration unparalleled and unique in American history. A migration of tens of thousands where no one was left behind, where those that went ahead planted crops, left trails and provided supplies they knew the pioneers who followed would need. Cooperation was the key. Lifting and helping fellow travelers was the rule. In contrast, those who were racing to California to seek gold, riches and personal power regularly sabotaged and stole from others on the journey, only looking out for themselves. Young’s vision and leadership drove a different kind of journey.
Once they arrived in the mountain valley, cooperation, thrift, grit and everyone doing what they could enabled the early settlers Young had led to cause the desert to blossom like a rose. Thousands were lifted out of poverty, thousands given the opportunity to pursue their dreams and their faith in peace. That is not the work of a dangerous leader. That is the work of an imperfect but striving servant-leader.
A perspective-inducing illustration occurred in October 1856, when two groups of handcart pioneers on their way to Utah were stuck on the plains of Wyoming. This group had left too late in the season, were short of provisions and an early winter took the lives of many. The frozen ground was so hard they could not dig graves for those who expired in the cold.
In what is now Salt Lake City, Brigham Young stood to open a general conference of the church. He was the leader. The citizens anxiously waited to hear an inspiring speech or a powerful sermon.
Instead, Brigham Young began by reading the report sent to Salt Lake by the leaders of the handcart groups. It told of “between five and six hundred men, women, and children, worn by drawing handcarts through the snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold; their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost.”
Brigham Young then called the people to action, with this simple message: “Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts … and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them.”
He said he would not wait until tomorrow or the next day. He called for 40 young men, 65 teams of mules or horses, and wagons loaded with 24,000 pounds of flour to leave immediately to rescue those pioneers in the wilderness.
“I will tell you all,” Young said, “that your faith … and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you … unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching. ... Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”
The rescue party quickly assembled and raced toward the snow-covered plains.
Days later, they reached the pioneers, arriving with food and blankets and hope. The survivors were then carried, some literally on the backs of their rescuers, to the Salt Lake Valley, home at last, to a city they had never seen but into a community where they belonged.
Brigham Young didn’t tweet about the historic rescue. No self-aggrandizing power plays or pats on the back. There were more refugees and Latter-day Saint pioneers coming from the east and from the nations of Europe. They too would need help and leaders who could organize, plan and build cities and communities that weary travelers from around the world could call home.
If Mr. Mason needs an expanded perspective, he might want to read the words of Gordon B. Hinckley, the 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a successor to Young. Hinckley described that shortly after their sojourn across the American continent, Brigham Young and a group of church leaders marched up a little hill on the north end of the Salt Lake valley, now called Ensign Peak. They climbed to get a little perspective as they began to envision the city they were about to build.
“They did not look like statesmen with great dreams. They did not look like rulers poring over maps and planning an empire.” Hinckley stated. “They were exiles, driven from their fair city on the Mississippi into this desert region of the West.”
Continuing, Hinckley said, “I marvel at the foresight of that little group. It was both audacious and bold. It was almost unbelievable. Here they were, almost 1,000 miles from the nearest settlement to the east and almost 800 miles from the Pacific Coast. They were in an untried climate. ... They had never raised a crop here. They had never experienced a winter. They had not built a structure of any kind. These prophets, dressed in old, travel-worn clothes, standing in boots they had worn for more than a thousand miles from Nauvoo to this valley, spoke of a millennial vision. … They came down from the peak that day and went to work to bring reality to their dream.”
The kind of despot Mason described regularly ends up on the ash-heap of history, not with a statue prominently placed in a statuary hall in the United States Capitol. More important than the statues, however, are the thousands of cities and towns that have positioned Utah and the intermountain west to be, not only a crossroad to the country, but also a crossroad to the world. Most important of all: Countless lives have been lifted and blessed through a less-than-perfect leader.
Countless lives have been lifted and blessed through a less-than-perfect leader.
I might suggest Mr. Mason hike the hill Brigham Young did in 1847 and gain a little perspective on perspective. This might help in viewing such a life from the totality of its results.
Great perspective and great vision usually occur when you aren’t locked into a point of view, political agenda or a low-level angle, but instead when you can observe people, leaders and their legacy from a little higher up.